The Politics of Withdrawal

By Andrew Noakes

Recently, the international community convened a special conference in Bonn to discuss their future commitment to Afghanistan. The emphasis was on transition. Western states want to hand over responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to the Afghan government, if possible, in the context of a peace deal with the Taliban.

But we have been here before. The year was 1971, and President Nixon was scrambling to withdraw US forces from Vietnam. Faced with growing domestic opposition to the conflict and a presidential election the following year, he advocated a policy of “Vietnamization”, which would see the South Vietnamese government increasingly taking over responsibility for its own security. At the same time, he pressed for peace with the Viet Cong and North Vietnam.

The parallels between the US withdrawal from Vietnam and the process of transition that is currently underway in Afghanistan are clear. Now, as Western forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, NATO should take the opportunity to learn from Nixon’s failures. It is almost forgotten now, but he did indeed achieve a peace deal with the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors. The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973 and were followed by a triumphant announcement by the President that he had secured “peace with honour”. But two years later, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, and the rest is history.

Understanding what went wrong in Vietnam should help us to make good policy decisions now. The critical point is that the American approach to withdrawal and peace was not driven by a consideration of the facts on the ground (i.e., the ability of the Vietnamese government to fight unaided or the extent to which their enemies were really interested in a deal), but rather by domestic opposition to the war. Because the overriding imperative was to leave Vietnam as soon as possible in response to this opposition, South Vietnam was left unable to defend itself and the peace deal that was struck lacked credibility.

Of course, it was in the interest of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese to make peace in 1973 because they wanted to see the back of the militarily superior American troops. Once they had left, they resumed the war because they believed – quite rightly – that they could win it outright through military means. The Taliban, under these circumstances, would undoubtedly believe the same.

In order to avoid making the same mistakes, NATO must make a strong strategic commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014. Presently, this should include keeping a reduced NATO force in the country, whose role would be limited to training, advising, and supporting the Afghan security forces, as well as conducting counter-terrorism operations. This should put pay to the idea that the Taliban can just wait until NATO leaves in 2014 and then defeat the Afghan government militarily. At the same time, a serious effort must be made to build the capacity of the Afghan army – a process that cannot, and must not, be rushed.

This approach will force the Taliban to the negotiating table. Once a deal is made, NATO troops could withdraw, but military and economic aid should continue. It must also be set in stone that any attempt to resume the conflict will result in air strikes against the Taliban and possibly a limited redeployment of Western forces. In 1975, when the government of South Vietnam was threatened by the North Vietnamese advance, the US refused to intervene to save them. Coalition forces cannot afford to let the Taliban think NATO will similarly fail the Afghan government; otherwise, any peace deal will lack credibility.

It is clear that there is no alternative to withdrawal and peace with the Taliban. With public and elite support for the war in terminal decline, and with the counter-insurgency effort plagued by tactical and strategic shortcomings, it is simply not possible to carry on. However, NATO must learn from the mistakes of the past. This transition must be carefully managed and driven by a consideration of the situation on the ground, rather than by domestic pressure. Coalition governments should not let the impulse to withdraw all their forces as soon as possible, regardless of the circumstances, and destroy Afghanistan’s future. If they do, the price will be an Afghan civil war and state failure.


Andrew Noakes is a graduate of Cambridge University and a current postgraduate student at King’s College London, where he is pursuing an MA in International Relations. His main interests are European security, African politics, and conflict in Afghanistan and South Asia. 


19 December 2011